The Missing

The death toll of Britons in the tsunami is now 441. But the Foreign Office says 2,000 are unaccounted for

The number of Britons feared to have perished in the Indian Ocean tsunami rose to 441 yesterday. The disaster could prove the most deadly to befall the country since the Second World War.

As the Foreign Office confirmed that the death toll had more than doubled since its last estimate, police said they were investigating a further 2,000 people reported missing, many of them backpackers. The final death toll for Britain could pass 500.

A former Scotland Yard detective leading the operation to identify bodies in Thailand, where the majority of Britons died, said some of the remains would never be recovered.

British police are still working through a list of some 2,000 missing people. But police sources stressed that many of those were backpackers who may have been thousands of miles from the disaster and so were of "much, much less concern". However, they conceded some of them could yet turn out to be victims.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who was in Phuket yesterday, faced accusations that he had deliberately played down the scale of the tragedy. The claims were vigorously denied by the Foreign Office.

The official number of confirmed British deaths last night stood at 50, which includes 37 in Thailand, 10 in Sri Lanka and three in the Maldives. A further 390 were considered "highly likely" to have lost their lives in the catastrophe, Mr Straw said.

A final toll of 500 would dwarf the total of 307 who died when devastating floods tore across the east coast of Britain in 1953, previously the worst post-war loss of life.

The Government's emergency call centre in north London has received 135,000 calls from worried members of the public, who raised concerns about 15,000 friends or relatives.

Most were false alarms. Until yesterday the official tally of those unaccounted for but considered "highly likely" to have died stood at 159.

But Mr Straw said: "It is now standing at 440 altogether. It is a dreadful tragedy for every family concerned and my heart goes out to them. You have to be straight with people and I had to say to the relatives that it may be many months before we are able to establish that the bodies are their relatives or whether we will find their bodies at all. We are doing our very best."

The bodies of 19 Britons have been returned, with inquests opened and adjourned.

As the death toll continued to rise, Indonesia added a further 7,000 to its estimated total. The number to have died in Sumatra now stands at 101,318 - more than two-thirds of the total killed. The United Nations emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland said the figure could rise further. "I do not think we are even close to having any figures as to how many people have died, how many are missing, how many have been severely affected," he said.

With bodies washing up on the shores of the Indian Ocean in every new tide, the UN secretary general Kofi Annan flew over the Indonesian province of Aceh, which bore the brunt of the disaster. "I have never seen such utter destruction, mile after mile. You wonder, where are the people," he said.

As the relief effort gathered pace, finance ministers from the G8 group of leading industrialised countries agreed to suspend debt repayments for tsunami-hit countries.

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